NI Paddler Experiences

Lock Down Reflections- By Stephen Creber, 27th April 2020

Bow Fiddle Rock, Moray Coast

It has been a strange month since ‘lock down’ began with wonderful weather and not being able to get out for a paddle with family and friends. However it has also been a time to appreciate all the things in the ‘great outdoors’ which we take for granted. A time to reflect on past trips and adventures and look back at photographs of these various trips.

In particular I have been reflecting on two recent but significant paddling trips.

The first of these was a week-long open canoe journey through the Hossa National Park in Finland in September 2018. This Finnish adventure was very special for me as it marked the start of retirement from the education sector and the opportunity to explore Europe’s last true wilderness area with a group of likeminded people. If you want a very special and unique paddling experience this part of Finland right on the Russian boarder, without a doubt will provide it.


In a very different way my Scottish trip last summer, with Susan and border collie Skye, was very important for me on my journey back to full fitness following a serious road accident earlier in the year. We spent the best part of five weeks in Scotland exploring sea lochs around Onich, the sound of Raasay from Applecross, canoeing on Loch Maree, the Moray coast based at Findochty and opening canoeing on the river Dee near Braemar. It was also good to be joined by our son Patrick who is based in Aberdeen, for some of our trips and to help out at the Aberdeen Canoe Club’s slalom event during the last weekend of July.

Loch Maree

Both of these adventures I would like to follow up on. I had hoped to return to Finland this autumn but have had to put things on hold until the coronavirus pandemic is over. As for the west coast of Scotland, Susan and I hope to get back over in September providing travel restrictions are lifted.

Hossa Finland

In the meantime as well as doing lots of jobs around the house and in the garden I am happy to reflect on past adventures, to plan and dream about future trips. In helping with my planning for our next Scottish trip I have been doing some reading and would recommend ‘Scottish Sea Kayaking’ by Doug Cooper and George Reid and ‘Isles at the Edge’ of the Sea by Jonny Muir. In addition I would also recommend an absolutely inspirational book ‘The Living Mountain’ by Nan Shepard. It has nothing directly to do with canoeing but is a true masterpiece of nature writing and a very uplifting read at the present time.

Hossa Finland

The lakes, lochs, rivers and open sea will be there for us all to enjoy with family and friends in the future.  However at present it is important that we stay safe and stay at home to help support the NHS and to start planning for our next adventures in the great outdoors.

Open Canoes- What a Pole Should be Made Of! By John Wilkinson, 12th May 2020

John Wilkinson with his pole

So, lets start of with some intentional good-natured hackle raising. 

Those of us that know, know that the only style of canoeing for development of maximum skills is open canoeing.  Every style of boat has is pros and cons, but the open boat would have been Da Vinci’s choice.  The open canoe is the realm of the paddlesport polymath.  What other style offers us the opportunities to develop such a wide range of paddle strokes and combination, our utilisation of knowledge of trim and edge, our need to pick and choose the route to avoid the worst of prevailing weather, the chance to run churning white water (within reason), to pole our way upstream, or snub our way down, to carry the kitchen sink when we go camping, to sail solo or in rafts, to understand and manage long portages in back country (with that kitchen sink!), to expand all of this to include another in the boat, and to do all this on small streams, river, lake and sea.

Sadly the truth is that much of the breadth of this skill set has eroded away in recent years and, in my opinion, some of the most enjoyable and challenging elements have been relegated to form little chunks of open canoe training and then shelved as oddities – namely, poling and sailing.   To address this, it was to be part of the Paddle- for-Sport plan this year to bring in some poling coaching and competition and potentially a sailing event.  However, both are clearly on hold!

John Wilkinson on the water

The intention of this short article, other than to annoy the non open boaters, is to raise some points for thoughts and discussion on canoe poles.  In this instance I’d like to focus on one area, the obvious one of materials.  This is not about selling anything so brand/makes/ retailers is not relevant.

Materials.  In short we have the commercially available options of aluminium/alloy, Carbon fibre and wood.  Each with its own benefits and failings.  These fall into feel, flex and durability. 

  • How the material feels in your hand is significant and in our climate the key tends to be how cold it is. 
  • Flex is a debateable one and worthy of discussion.  Too much flex and the pole has no power, too little flex and it is sore on the body.  A little flex also provides a nice bit of spring. 
  • Durability.  Traditional wooden poles were always seen as short-term investments – often cut when needed and discarded afterwards in a countryside with loads of trees.  The life of a pole clearly hangs partially on the skill of the owner and the ability to quick release when it is trapped.   Most poles die with their tip trapped between rocks and a heavy canoe refusing to obey the polers directions to stop.

Alloy poles are cold on your hands and feel hard to the touch, they have little flex so bend under serious strain.  They are the cheapest and usually come as splits at 12ft and around £65-70.   They float because the ends are bunged and they have air inside.

Carbon poles are warmer on your hands and have a softer feel than alloy, they flex a little but can be prone to snapping when trapped.  They are the most expensive and usually come as splits at 12ft and around £90-105. They float because the ends are bunged and they have air inside.

Wooden poles are the warmest on your hands, a softer feel than Carbon and have the most flex, and are less prone to snapping when trapped.   However, wooden poles in the UK are rare, are invariably one piece long and therefore, for postal reasons, tend to be 10ft.  You can get a wooden pole for around £70.  Wooden poles float.

John Wilkinson with his open canoe

As a traditionalist in paddle sports it would not come as a surprise that I personally use a wooden pole.  I have two, both of which have seen a good deal of service over the ten years I have had them, and one or the other of them goes with me on every open canoe paddle trip.

Fun when Canoeing with Scouts, By Leslie Carswell (B.E.M.), 2nd June 2020

Leslie Carswell (B.E.M) paddling

CANI member, Leslie Carswell, received a British Empire Medal (B.E.M.) in the New Year’s Honour List in 2020 for services to Scouting in general and canoeing in particular. Leslie tells us of how he first experienced canoeing through the scouts and what he has enjoyed most and learned since.

 “My first contact with canoeing, in a Belfast scout troop about 60 years ago building three canoes from floorboards and a new product at the time, PVC! They were so heavy that when tied to the roof of a car, we had to be careful about turning a corner.

Leslie warming up a group of Italian Scouts (only one of whom spoke English)

There was a gap until I moved to Ballymena in the 1970s. My first trip with Scouts there was down the river Bann but the kayaks were too easily turned compared with the dreadnoughts I helped build so many years ago. As I was doing a few `pas de deux` on the trip I realised it was time to do some training. Fortuitously a few of us commenced training before the infamous Lyme Bay incident.

Spreading the joys of canoeing was an easy task now we were trained. In Scouting this meant bringing Cubs, Scouts and Explorer Scouts out onto the water in the hope that many would take it up as a leisure activity and some to challenge in a sporting capacity. This also meant that fellow Scout leader, Mark Dick and I extended our role to give the opportunity to County Antrim Scout leaders so that they could take it further once we trained them to (in the old days) 2 star level. Our longer term idea was that they could eventually take over from Mark and myself in this role. However, it is too enjoyable for us to step down.

Finishing a pyramid of 11 Canadians and 3 kayaks at a local jamboree

In Scouting we have Jamborees, events for Scouts that include canoeing as an activity. I was called upon a couple of years ago to take charge with one day’s warning as the original leader suffered an injury. However, all went well with over 800 getting on and off the water safely over the week. Not bad for a 70 year old. In the next year I had a role as a Duke of Edinburgh Silver assessor for NI scouts on a wild camping/canoe trip on lakes in Canada.  Our own troop carry out a river Braid clean-up every December (an excellent way in a flow to train manoeuvring to get that pesky bit of plastic hanging from tree). 

Annual River Braid clean-up with trailer filled to brim with plastic bags

Many of us have enjoyed canoeing in different parts of the world but the greatest total enjoyment is canoeing in our own fantastic country. Within short distances we have rivers, coastlines, lakes, even swimming pools to use when weather is inclement. Let’s all celebrate what we have on our doorstep, share our enjoyment in what is a prime leisure activity. I hope you have enjoyed reading this, after all it’s all about sharing experiences, training and having FUN. Isn’t it great one gets an award for an activity we enjoy doing. It will be great when our present `lochdoine` is over!

Poling in Scotland

Stand Up Paddleboarding Adventures, By Enda Young, 22nd July 2020

Enda Young on a SUP adventure

I started paddling when I joined the Canoe Club at Queen’s University almost twenty years ago. I’ve rediscovered my passion for the water recently, and when I started the OutdoordadNI initiative.

Research has show the direct connection between the outdoors and positive mental health. Doctors in Scotland (see report here) have started to prescribe nature as a treatment for their patients, it’s been  scientifically proven (see report here) that spending time in the great outdoors is a powerful natural anti-depressant, and it’s been shown that regular exercise can reduce the risk of  depression by 30% (see report here).

Being outside and on the water is by no means the entire answer for positive mental health, but I believe it can be an important part of the solution.   

A stunning view from Enda Young’s SUP

Watching Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) become one of the fastest growing paddle sports in the world over the last few years, I decided to invest in an inflatable board (iSUP).  I had tried out a few boards in the past, but hadn’t really found it that enjoyable. After some research (and realising the importance of the right width and length), I settled on an iRocker Cruiser as my first board. 

Around 80% of SUPs on the market are inflatable and if you are going to invest in one I would highly recommend an electric pump as well (you can be changed by the time the board is ready to paddle).

Enda Young paddling in the Foyle.

Last summer I took part in the “Wave Sweepers” event organised by Far and Wild from the Walled City up the Foyle Estuary to Moville (we were originally aiming for Greencastle but the tide and light beat us in the end).  We managed to paddle about 30km in 6 hours and raised funds for Lighthouse, a local suicide prevention charity. 

Honestly, I’m not sure if I can recommend paddling on any SUP for 6 hours straight, but it was a brilliant event and a great way to see the Foyle!

A unique view of the water from Enda Young’s SUP

My favourite places to paddle are on the Lower Bann (using the Canoe Trail and avoiding the weirs and sluice gates), the River Roe from outside Limavady (from Swanns Bridge) and around White Rocks on the North Coast.

As well as being a great workout for both the body and mind, spending time on a SUP offers a different perspective to either a canoe or kayak.  I think it’s a useful tool for introducing children to the world of paddlesport and you can also fit the dog on as well.

If you don’t have your own board, there are now loads of outdoor providers offering lessons and rentals all over Northern Ireland from the Roe, to Bangor and Strangford Lough.  I think it’s great to see and testament to the unique view of the water that only being on a SUP can offer you.   

Canoe Polo Paddling Experiences, By Corinna McCoy, 24th August 2020

Corinna in match action

My paddling career, as a female player, hasn’t been without its challenges. From starting as an in-experienced player on the first Ulster girls’ team at the Junior International Championships in Belfast 2017, to becoming the Irish U21 national team’s Captain at the recent 2019 European Championships in Coimbra, Portugal. Looking back at the start of my athletic journey, I was met with many challenges including managing my living and studying arrangements at university, on top of personal socialising and training schedules. Regardless, the decisions I made to leave more mainstream sports including hockey and moving university to be based closer to home and training grounds, was the necessary move to progress to the level to which I play at today. A key lesson to my development was realising I was never going to be able to perform to the same level as a male my age or older. Instead, I learned tactically how to out skill someone I contested against.

Corinna training on the water

The idea of 10,000 hours of practice sunk in deep. Months of tough training, with physical contests, getting pushed, being picked last for teams, little competition exposure and always being watched and supported in case something bad happened. 2 years after starting canoe polo, I pushed myself in my training and university performances. I travelled to Lithuania and Rome in the pre-season, finishing in respectable positions on 2 different teams. Shortly after, squad training for 2019 began in Belfast, where I was determined to make a greater impact on the final outcome in team ranks and a more enjoyable competitive summer. I was selected to represent the Irish National U21 team at the 2019 European Championships, narrowly finishing in 7th position, the highest-ranking position the team finished at a European Championships. This has been one of my greatest achievement to date, to develop as a player and person, captioning the team during good and bad experiences, and being able to transfer the skills I learnt to my daily life.

Corinna (left) helping at the Female Expo at Tollymore in March 2020

The development of canoe polo in Ireland is developing rapidly. For my placement year of university, I worked with Belfast Kayak Academy/Ulster Canoe Polo Club to increase the accessibility and opportunities to young children. We have a great working partnership with local schools, providing after school club 4 afternoons a week, alongside evening beginner sessions and polo training. A major component of my work was to increase the recruitment drive for newcomers to the sport and create a development plan to ensure the retainment and sustainability of new members. Lauren Smythe, CANI, reached out to myself in early 2020 to assist in increasing the profile of women’s kayaking, an opportunity I was keen to join. A young female participant was able to join this opportunity, to assist in showcasing canoe polo in a training session showing Lauren what the sport was all about, in addition to accompanying myself at an event in Tollymore for women’s sport during International Woman’s Day. For the sport and the club, this was a great chance to advertise who we are and what we offer, showcasing the sport and answering questions in regard to opportunities and experiences.

Corinna with her international team mates

Covid-19 significantly affected the club in a time where development was improving. With government guidelines, we closed the academy’s facilities prior to lockdown. Like others, this was hard to swallow as all the hard work since 2020 to create something for beginner kayakers was disrupted. All competitions were cancelled, which was hard to take to start because the level of training and sacrifices made prior to this felt meaningless, normal training routines were neglected and motivation to start back was challenging. I tried to maintain some level of training during lockdown however this was incredibly challenging with training individually and I struggled to stay motivated. I went from training to 4 times a week to nothing in a matter of days. I am a self-motivated person, but when things are tough, I struggle to ‘see the light at the end of the tunnel.’ I developed the mindset of not focusing on the level I was at prior to lockdown, instead focusing on the best level I can be at post lockdown. 2020 was due to be my concluding year of U21 level and with Covid, everything was put on hold. I intended to make the most out of this year however I took the time to think about what I’m wanting to get out of the sport and opportunities I can take advantage of. It is hard to plan when things are so unsure and if any competitions can go ahead, or do I still take the time to fact find what is possible next.

In July, Ulster Canoe Polo Club returned to ‘normal’ training after over 4 and a half months of lockdown, followed by Belfast Kayak Academy re-starting beginner kayaking sessions in August. We saw our greatest demand for beginner kayaking in years, where we implemented a booking system to control the number of participants, and a rotation of 4 paddle sports instructors.  It is great to see so many young kids confident and happy in the water and seeing improvements in their skills. As we ease out of lockdown, we are planning for the upcoming months to make sure we can provide everyone with the opportunities they deserve as a beginner kayaker or a canoe polo athlete.